How to give to charity (1)

The fundraising industry and charities can become co-dependent

moneyA while ago I looked at  an American site called Charity Navigator.1 A charity itself,  it looks at the financial efficiency, governance and transparency of charities in the USA, providing a star rating and all kinds of information. What a good idea. It highlights total clunkers. For example, the Cancer Survivors’ Fund which spends just 8.1% of its income on its programs; 89.2% on its fundraising. It must be congratulated on giving professional fundraisers a new purpose and meaning in life.

However, try the ’10 best charities everyone has heard of’ list and take a bow, Samaritan’s Purse.  Samaritan’s Purse puts 88% of every dollar it receives into its charitable programs. (Though it still manages to pay Franklin Graham a to my mind eye-popping annual salary of $443,000. Compassion International’s CEO Santiago H Mellado scrapes by on $130,000 less. Compassion turns over half as much again as Samaritan’s Purse ($0.8bn compared with $0.5bn) and hands over 83% of its income to the poor.)

Others are still good but not quite so good: Oxfam America burns through nearly 14% of its income in fundraising and pays its CEO nearly  half a million dollars a year. Its turnover is a mere $90m.

A very few charities– fewer than 1%–get perfect scores on Charity Navigator for their financial policies and their accountability, openness and integrity. Most are small. In the evangelical missions space, just one manages it: step forward The Outreach Foundation which ‘seeks to engage Presbyterians in Christ-centered evangelistic mission for the salvation of humankind.’ Expect Presbyterians to be good with with accountancy and souls.

Here in the UK I know of no similar charity. Does anyone? Instead, we are assailed by various groups in various ways with no very easy way to figure out whether we are dealing with the gruesome UK equivalent of the Cancer Survivor’s Fund or the more uplifting examples like Samaritan’s Purse or The Outreach Foundation.

Craftsmen! Fight the horns!

Take back control by using the unfair weapons of generosity, wit and grace.

Mercado Medieval‘Craftsman! Fight the horns!’ is not a battle-cry I hear that often, perhaps for obvious reasons. 1

I like it though. You who are Bible scholars will recognize it from the the prophet/poet Zechariah. He talks about ‘horns’ (nasty, sharp, heavy, brutal things) let loose in the nation, but then ‘craftsmen’ come along and de-horn the horns. (Zechariah 1:18-21)

A better translation for ‘craftsmen’ might be ‘blacksmiths’ because I’m told the word is a generic one for any worker in metal.

What I really like is that the solution to the horns is not bigger horns. It’s skilled people, people doing their jobs beautifully and well. The book of Daniel has a ‘little horn’ that undermines the big ones. Same sort of idea, perhaps: in neither case is the solution major horn-on-horn combat. The New Testament takes this further with the simple ‘overcome evil with good.’

2016 seems (to me) like a vintage year for horns. I really want to fight horn with horn, but the fight is against thuggish misconceptions, not people. I have to face the possibility, however slight, that the ‘huddled masses’ who are today ‘yearning to be free (of foreigners)’ are actually good people exactly like me, only with differently configured flaws.

I suspect the best way to oppose the horns is to give humility, courtesy, generosity and craftsmanship a go.

(Which means giving up a lot of really enjoyable malicious humour. Pity…)

The God of small things

The case for being on the back row, third from the left

Though famous speakers and evangelists today can reach thousands of people with one telecast, discipleship is done one relationship at a time by those we will never read about. Their legacy is seen in the lives of those they touched. Perhaps I will never find the spotlight. But my value to the kingdom of God is not determined by my ability to attract or hold the spotlight. Instead, it is determined by my willingness to listen, learn, and be used by Jesus, whenever and however he desires.’

(Losers Like Us: Redefining Discipleship after Epic Failure
By Daniel Hochhalter)

I’m grateful to my colleague Miriam Cowpland for (reading this book and) digging out this quote.

 

The Netflix ‘chaos monkey’ and the problem of evil

Monkey business

Here’s a thing.

Netflix’s software engineers put into Netflix a program called the ‘chaos monkey.’ Its job is to go through Netflix’s servers, randomly wreaking havoc.
09-monkeys
Why do they do this? Because they wanted to be ‘constantly testing our ability to succeed despite failure.‘ Chaos monkey taught them to build programmes that continue to work with bad stuff happening all around. The random, mindless destructivity leads to better systems.

Enter Thomas Aquinas (13th century theological alpha male). He quotes and then adds to Augustine, (fourth century theological alpha male) 1:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Augustine (by Lewis Comfort Tiffany)

Aquinas by Carlo_Crivelli
Aquinas by Carlo_Crivelli

As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): “Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.” This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.

Evil is God’s chaos monkey, and the world is better for it.

Maybe.

 

Peak bookshop

Dig out your book tokens. It’s time. Oh yum.

This is the best time of year to experience ‘Peak Bookshop’. All the titles for Christmas shopping will be in. (Or should be.)

Sort your way past the:

  • Celebrity puff pieces
  • Recipe books
  • Old horses being flogged (regular bestsellers hatching another well-timed Christmas hardback)

… and find the stuff that makes bookshops great. That makes bookshops still great despite being gutted and filleted by Amazon: a curated collection of original, brilliant, beyond-our-experience insight. Storytelling round a global campfire. Human minds on sale, packaged for easy consumption. The best thinking, expressed in the best ways, all ready for us to engage with, dream with, laugh with, lose ourselves in, ponder, be shaped by.

Glory be.
campfire

Darkness and light. Really?

That’s no way to talk of my friends

Argemone ochroleuca flower6The people I know who are outside of the Christian faith would not respond too well to Bible verses like this:

But you were once darkness — now you are light in the Lord. (Ephesians 5:8)

I see their point. I would rather call my neighbours and colleagues funny, courageous, kind, hospitable, warm-hearted. And so on. Rather than, you know, ‘darkness.’

Of course the Apostle Paul (for it is he) is writing at this point not to outsiders to the faith, but to insiders, and surely he is encouraging them in their self doubt, and reminding them of God’s kindness. He uses a different language when he is stirring people to follow Christ in the first place.

But it raises the question: what are we actually talking about here? Is faith a thing? Or is it just a religious rebranding of an unchanged heart?

I think it’s a bit like re-purposing a good, old, disused building or taking on a neglected allotment (an allotment in the UK is a patch of land that you can rent cheaply to grow vegetables). An old allotment actually may contain all kinds of treasures, fruit trees, brambles, an asparagus patch. But it is overgrown.

A new owner comes. The bindweed and the ground elder don’t vanish overnight.  Both before the change and afterwards, the allotment is a mix of good crop and weeds. But after the new owner comes, it has new direction, new planting, new purpose, intentional ground clearing, a new direction and a new destiny. And it’s still easily neglected, plagued with slugs, not necessarily all that fruitful.

What came before wasn’t worthless. It contained real treasure. Yet the upheaval and change is real too. Darkness and light.

 

Revolution in the air

But it’s OK

In a single month a while ago I made four visits and had four snapshots of quiet revolution.

  1. A tour round Jimmy’s Nightshelter in central Cambridge
  2. Taking some furniture to be recycled at the Emmaus community north of Cambridge
  3. Buying some fairly traded food at the Daily Bread Cooperative in the North of Cambridge
  4. Popping in to see the manager of our own St Martin’s Centre for the elderly.

Each place exuded peace and a kind of a quiet well-ordered-ness. Each place runs through the hands of many volunteers and a number of full-time staff who are not paid well. Each fights almost daily battles with bureaucracy and politics that threaten to capsize the whole ship. Yet each provides a vital service to a large part of a city.

Each is an expression of Christian faith that is unsung, long-term, wholly appropriate for the 21st century.

Then I read this quote — more appropriate to regions outside Europe, but still relevant.

‘Alongside the political, economic, social and technological revolutions … which have commanded enormous media attention and coverage … there has been this far less trumpeted, but equally important revolution in the status and standing of worldwide Christianity. Few have taken on board what is happening.’ (Kenneth Hylsom-Smith To the ends of the earth ISBN 978 1 842 274 750)

First light

First light: it isn’t dark: the sky is brightening, day is inevitable. But it isn’t day either, because the Sun has yet to rise in all its glory, transforming everything.

When the Sun rises, it touches the mountaintops first. The church is very like these mountains. We are positioned there in the night-time landscape. We ourselves are a mixture of darkness and light. But what makes us different is that without any merit on our part, without us even particularly doing anything, the Sun is shining on us.

Here in the night-time, we are already enjoying the day-time. God brings a little day-time to us, and through us a light is cast on a twilit world.

Something real has happened to us if we turned to Christ. The New Testament boldly states that when Christ gives someone a new heart, it’s a piece of the world to come: ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!’

Then—like that sunlit mountain—we are a sign of something, and an example of something, to the world around.

A little glimpse of a new world

It’s really like this.

… It’s a place of welcome and laughter, of healing and hope, of friends and family and justice and new life.

Happy parishioners‘It’s where the homeless drop in for a bowl of soup, and the elderly for someone to chat to. It’s where you’ll find people learning to pray, coming to faith, struggling with temptation, finding new purpose and a new power to carry it out.

‘It’s where people bring their own small faith and discover that when they get together with others to worship the true God, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. No church is like this all of the time. But a remarkable number of churches are partly like that for quite a lot of the time.’ (p 105)

 

What just happened?

Somebody sat on the Fast Forward button

Storm Damage, June 21, 2011, Skokie and Morton Grove
Oh my goodness.

And yet:

  • It’s always good to bet on the goodness and mercy of God. This political crisis is his doing.
  • Blessed (still) are the peacemakers.

I voted to remain and felt like I’d been punched.